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On-Again, Off-Again American : Man Without a Country No Longer Adrift; Judge Returns U.S. Citizenship

April 16, 1991|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gregorio Calantas Rivera, a native Filipino, served five years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was held as a Japanese prisoner of war. He survived the infamous Bataan death march.

The United States expressed its gratitude by giving him citizenship. But then the U.S. government abruptly yanked it away, saying immigration authorities made a mistake. For the past six years, Rivera, now 74, who lives in San Diego, has been a man without a country.

On Monday, the same federal judge in San Diego who officially had deemed Rivera stateless ruled that a technicality in the immigration laws had made him eligible again for American citizenship. U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. administered the oath immediately.

When the oath was done, at the end of a seven-minute hearing that brought to a close six years of legal limbo, Rivera, clutching an American flag, his wife, Paciencia, and naturalization certificate 14741053, said, "I feel great now."

Immigration officials made no special exception for

Rivera or recognition of his valor. Instead, they concluded that he was eligible to become an American through the amnesty provisions afforded farm workers under the 1986 immigration reforms.

Rivera qualified because he used to pick grapes up and down California.

"My faith in divine providence, as well as the great leaders of America and the fairness and justice of the American system, made me feel that eventually I would again triumph," he said.

His wife said, "I see that fairness has been shown to us."

Rivera's long quest for citizenship is not unique. An estimated 150,000 Filipino veterans served the U.S. military during World War II.

For them, citizenship, first promised 50 years ago, is only two weeks off. Beginning May 1, a bill signed last November by President Bush offers summary naturalization to Filipino war veterans.

The sweeping bill also sharply raises U.S. immigration limits for Irish, Italian, Polish and other immigrants.

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order incorporating the Philippine armed forces into the U.S. military, pledging citizenship to Filipinos who joined the fight against Japan. At the time, the Philippines was a U.S. colony.

Rivera, who had been in the Philippine army, joined up.

During the war, Rivera claims, he made an oral request for U.S. citizenship. However, the request never reached American immigration officials because the commanding officer who received it died during the Bataan death march.

About 10,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war died at the hands of Japanese soldiers during the 55-mile march. Rivera survived because he escaped into the jungle.

When the war ended, Rivera remained in the Philippines. But, in August, 1982, on a trip to America to visit family, he decided to apply for citizenship. One of his 13 children, a daughter who lives in San Diego, is married to an American in the U.S. Navy. Rivera began working in California vineyards.

In November, 1984, Thompson declared Rivera a U.S. citizen based on his military service. Rivera renounced his Philippine citizenship.

Two months later, however, he was asked to voluntarily give up his U.S. citizenship because officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service had erred and allowed him to become a citizen under a law that applied to U.S. veterans from other countries--but not from the Philippines.

The wartime naturalization program that Roosevelt promised had expired--in 1946. There simply was no law under which Rivera could become a U.S. citizen based on military service, and he was not eligible for any other program, INS attorney Alan Rabinowitz said.

Rivera refused to relinquish his citizenship. So on Jan. 29, 1985, Thompson stripped him of it.

Thompson also ruled that Rivera's 1942 request was not legally valid evidence because it never reached U.S. immigration officials and because Rivera had no way of verifying that he ever made the request.

In 1986, Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which created a pair of amnesty programs offering legal residence--the familiar "green card"--to two distinct groups, foreigners who could show that they had been residing illegally in the United States since 1982 and laborers who had done at least 90 days of field work on U.S. farms in recent years.

About 1.1 million foreign residents, more than half of them Mexican citizens residing in California, applied for the farm-worker amnesty program. On Aug. 6, 1987, Rivera applied.

Last Dec. 17, the INS admitted Rivera for permanent residence. Under a 1952 law, permanent residence status is enough for a judge to grant American citizenship based on military status, according to court papers filed in Rivera's case by his attorney, Jonathon P. Foerstel of the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.

This time, the INS concluded that all the prerequisites were met, Rabinowitz said after the hearing Monday before Thompson. "It was a good ending," Rabinowitz said. "It just took time."

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